Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 30 January 2019

If parliament continues like this it makes May’s deal inevitable

So yesterday most of the Conservative party found unity, by once again believing in a unicorn. The unicorn that the EU would allow the UK to unilaterally end the backstop. Of course a backstop that one side can end without that side being in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods is not a backstop at all. Alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border in Ireland did not exist when the UK was negotiating with the EU and they still do not exist. If you wanted an illustration of how stupid this country looks to those overseas here it is. If you want to see how implicated the right wing press is in this stupidity look at the headlines today: Mail - “Theresa’s Triumph”, Express - “She’s Done It”.

Why did the Prime Minister and her party indulge in this fantasy? Because it runs down the clock. May wants to run down the clock because she thinks, with good reason, that in the end parliament will vote for her deal. The ERG wants to run down the clock because it wants No Deal. What we saw yesterday was the willingness of the Prime Minister to look completely stupid over the next week or so banging her head against an EU brick wall just to avoid compromising on her red lines.

What was new and much more worrying about last night is that we learnt there was a new block in parliament. This block will vote to stop parliament doing anything to try and find an alternative to May’s deal. We already knew that the ERG and May’s block would do that, but they were short of a majority. They got a majority last night thanks to 14Labour MPs. If this continues, it will prevent parliament coming up with any alternative to May’s deal that can command a majority. That just leaves May’s deal and No Deal left as we approach 29th March.

But surely, you may be asking, how can May’s deal win when it was so decisively rejected last time? The ERG will continue to vote against it, because they want No Deal. But will Labour MPs and Tory rebels still vote against it if that inevitably means No Deal? I doubt it. Anyone voting against May’s Deal when it is the only alternative to No Deal would get blamed for the chaos of No Deal. Instead Labour will choose abstention, allowing May’s block to beat the ERG block and May’s deal to pass.

If this happens, no one comes out of this well. The ERG really do hate an all UK backstop. May will have her negotiating credibility torn to pieces before she has to do a trade deal with the EU, in a situation where the UK is once again fighting against the clock (the end of transition). Labour will have not voted against the deal they committed to voting against. But the institution that would lose most with this outcome is parliament itself. It had an opportunity to take control from a bankrupt government and it failed. While it is tempting to blame the 14 Labour MPs, the real problem is that the majority of Conservative MPs are prepared to seriously damage the economy, make the UK an international laughing stock and risk the chaos of No Deal just to preserve the unity of their deeply flawed party.  


  1. Excellent I was thinking the same but forgot that Labour could abstain

  2. You've argued that austerity is bad since there is a lack of demand in the economy. Won't a No Deal help in creating additional demand?

    1. Business disruption would cut investment spending, which reduces one source of demand. Aggregate demand would be less under No Deal, and the need for fiscal stimulus would be higher, not lower. One can argue in favour of Brexit anyway, subject to that

  3. Explain me like I am five. What is the official reason why it is so important for the UK to make its own trade deals? Surely any new trade deal will be less advantageous to the UK as it has much less negotiation power? Multi-national corporations would love a weakened UK with worse trade deals, but that will not be the official reason.

  4. This I think is (in part at least) the long term damage of triangulation. No ground work has been done at all to open the possibility of altering Article 50. Instead the same myth about what democracy requires has been uniformly parroted out, and as we see with these labour MPs, it is not easy now to just order the people convinced by them to U turn.

  5. I think what you miss is that when May goes to Brussels and they refuse to reopen the WA (quite reasonably) then she can blame whatever fallout ensues (either with her deal or no deal) on the EU and not on her own manifest incompetence.

    I also agree that the backstop is a conundrum which is very difficult to solve when one side is outside the SM and the customs union but of course if the UK were still in them then this would nullify Brexit entirely.

    1. The UK badly needs a transition period to make Brexit manageable, I think it'll send us back into recession, but the WA is not at all reasonable. The backstop seems an attempt to bounce the UK into staying in the CU and SM, I suppose because May was a Remain campaigner and wants a close relationship and the EU wants to prevent a hard Brexit. The risk of no deal is used as a bludgeon.

  6. Neither May's deal nor no-deal is inevitable. Both are unlikely.

  7. Amazing - and probably right - I think in the dysfunctional politics race between the US and the UK that the UK has pulled decisively ahead...

  8. given the public view, it is May or no deal. The public and parliament can’t agree what a deal is. Thus we are headed for no deal. Maybe labour will back may deal but I doubt it.

  9. The reason the Conservatives can do this is that they have with 42% of the vote nearly 50% of the seats.

    A concept you see from the American left that we need here in the UK is the dismissal of minoritarian rule.

    I can see the possibility of a repeat of the poll tax.

  10. Please spell Parliament with a capital P.

  11. I dunno. You said in a previous post that No Deal was "very unlikely" and that even "rhetoric" about it was bad because it would deter investment?

  12. Is the chance of a No Deal Brexit low (less than 20%)?

    The meaningful vote on the Jan 15th saw 118 conservatives and 10 DUP MPs vote against their government. This was a recreational vote nothing happened as a result. 128 MPs voting against May's deal marks a high water mark.

    On the 29th January 14 labour MPs voted with the government against the Cooper amendment. In addition there seem to have been about 6 labour MPs abstaining. This was a less recreational vote. This result shows it's going to be very difficult for remainers to delay Brexit.

    The numbers stand at 128 Conservative and DUP MPs prepared to vote against the government and 20 Labour MPs prepare to prop it up.

    There is a good chance that May's tactic of running down the clock will work and there will be a vote where most MPs will see the vote as May's deal or No deal. That vote will not be recreational. Under these circumstances government rebels come down from 128 to say 64.
    Labour government proper uppers go from 20 to say 40. Would the lib dems or the SNP really vote for a no deal Brexit?

    The current state of the UK Parliament just looks par for the course for a minority government.

    Representative parliamentary democracy is terrible, however all the other systems are much worse.

  13. What I cannot understand, is this:

    No responsible Government would ever hold a Referendum asking:

    "Shall we Leave the EU, no matter the cost or consequence"?

    No responsible Parliament would ever allow it.

    So why do both the Government & Parliament, who chose not to make the result legally binding,
    seem so determined to treat the result both, as if that WAS the question and it was legally binding?

    There was a political obligation on our lawmakers to "respect the result, but also an obligation to halt the process if it became clear, they would be neglecting their duty of care to 65m people by proceeding.

    The only possible explanations are self-interest, self-perpetuation and a determination to follow particular political dogma, whatever the consequences, with the narrow majority the perfect screen to hide behind, in the event of disaster?

    It makes no sense.

  14. Simon why can't you approve comments daily :(

  15. Prof an entertaining blog post as ever. However a name change to mainly brexit is long overdue.

    No offence intended, but are these blog posts the best use of your time?

    The Government appears to be willing to offer cash (spending commitments) for the support of Labour Brexit MPs. The trouble with John Mann, Caroline Flint et al, is they will ask for far too little. If we can't get a general election out of this a decent sized fiscal stimulus aimed at left behind Britain could be achievable.

    Prof could you please offer your services to the Brexit Labour MPs to negotiate the stimulus with the Treasury. My going in figure would be for 20 Billion pounds. Remember the Tories are in a very tight spot here and I think a genuine fiscal stimulus is there for the asking.

    With the global economy stalling, Italy in recession, Germany heading the same way, the UK needs a stimulus a.s.a.p.

    I'm not a Tory, but I echo some of the comments above offering support for Theresa May. Brexit will not determine the future economic performance of the UK. The most important factor will, as ever, be the UK Government fiscal stance. It's obviously currently far too tight.

    Should you get involved with the stimulus negotiations I'm sure your blog readers would fully understand any reduction in frequency of blog posting.

  16. I'd just like to take issue with some of the comments above calling for support for Theresa May. The prime ministers performance has been lamentable. In a two party system both parties need to be functional. Leave the Labour party to one side (it must be functional in power).

    It's the job of a conservative prime minister to sell out the right wing of the tory party. May has not done this. The analogy here is with the later stages of the Thatcher administration with all the wets gone.

    Electoral disaster for the Tory party must follow.

  17. "That just leaves May’s deal and No Deal left as we approach 29th March."

    Or no Brexit. If May's deal fails, I really hope MPs have the guts to revoke A50.

  18. "If parliament continues like this it makes May’s deal inevitable"

    I thought it worth revisiting this in light of new developments. We now have 12 MPs who would be almost certain to lose their livelihood in the event of a General Election this year. John Major made the final Maastricht vote a vote of confidence. I can see Theresa May doing the same with her plan and daring the turkeys to vote for Christmas. The more MPs that leave their parties, the stronger she gets.


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